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Metaphysical naturalism (also called ontological naturalism, philosophical naturalism and antisupernaturalism) is a philosophical worldview which holds that there is nothing but natural elements, principles, and relations of the kind studied by the natural sciences. Methodological naturalism is a philosophical basis for science, for which metaphysical naturalism provides only one possible ontological foundation. Broadly, the corresponding theological perspective is religious naturalism or spiritual naturalism. More specifically, metaphysical naturalism rejects the supernatural concepts and explanations that are part of many religions.
According to Steven Schafersman, geologist and president of Texas Citizens for Science, metaphysical naturalism is a philosophy that maintains that: 1. Nature encompasses all that exists throughout space and time; 2. Nature (the universe or cosmos) consists only of natural elements, that is, of spatiotemporal physical substance—mass–energy. Non-physical or quasi-physical substance, such as information, ideas, values, logic, mathematics, intellect, and other emergent phenomena, either supervene upon the physical or can be reduced to a physical account; 3. Nature operates by the laws of physics and in principle, can be explained and understood by science and philosophy; and 4. the supernatural does not exist, i.e., only nature is real. Naturalism is therefore a metaphysical philosophy opposed primarily by Biblical creationism.
According to Arthur C. Danto, naturalism, in recent usage, is a species of philosophical monism according to which whatever exists or happens is natural in the sense of being susceptible to explanation through methods which, although paradigmatically exemplified in the natural sciences, are continuous from domain to domain of objects and events. Hence, naturalism is polemically defined as repudiating the view that there exists or could exist any entities which lie, in principle, beyond the scope of scientific explanation.
Regarding the vagueness of the general term "naturalism," David Papineau traces the current usage to philosophers in early 20th century America such as John Dewey, Ernest Nagel, Sidney Hook, and Roy Wood Sellars: "So understood, 'naturalism' is not a particularly informative term as applied to contemporary philosophers. The great majority of contemporary philosophers would happily accept naturalism as just characterized—that is, they would both reject 'supernatural' entities, and allow that science is a possible route (if not necessarily the only one) to important truths about the 'human spirit.'" Papineau remarks that philosophers widely regard naturalism as a "positive" term, and "few active philosophers nowadays are happy to announce themselves as 'non-naturalists,'" while noting that "philosophers concerned with religion tend to be less enthusiastic about 'naturalism'" and that despite an "inevitable" divergence due to its popularity, if more narrowly construed, (to the chagrin of John McDowell, David Chalmers and Jennifer Hornsby, for example), those not so disqualified remain nonetheless content "to set the bar for 'naturalism' higher."
Philosopher and theologian Alvin Plantinga, a well-known critic of naturalism in general, comments: "Naturalism is presumably not a religion. In one very important respect, however, it resembles religion: it can be said to perform the cognitive function of a religion. There is that range of deep human questions to which a religion typically provides an answer ... Like a typical religion, naturalism gives a set of answers to these and similar questions".
Metaphysical naturalism is an approach to metaphysics or ontology, which deals with existence per se. It should not be confused with methodological naturalism, which sees empiricism as the basis for the scientific method.
Regarding science and evolution, Eugenie C. Scott, a notable opponent of teaching creationism or intelligent design in US public schools, stresses the importance of separating metaphysical from methodological naturalism:
If it is important for Americans to learn about science and evolution, decoupling the two forms of naturalism is essential strategy. ... I suggest that scientists can defuse some of the opposition to evolution by first recognizing that the vast majority of Americans are believers, and that most Americans want to retain their faith. It is demonstrable that individuals can retain religious beliefs and still accept evolution as science. Scientists should avoid confusing the methodological naturalism of science with metaphysical naturalism.— Eugenie C. Scott, "Creationism, Ideology, and Science"
Science and naturalism
Metaphysical naturalism is the philosophical basis of science as described by Kate and Vitaly (2000). "There are certain philosophical assumptions made at the base of the scientific method – namely, 1) that reality is objective and consistent, 2) that humans have the capacity to perceive reality accurately, and that 3) rational explanations exist for elements of the real world. These assumptions are the basis of naturalism, the philosophy on which science is grounded. Philosophy is at least implicitly at the core of every decision we make or position we take, it is obvious that correct philosophy is a necessity for scientific inquiry to take place." Steven Schafersman, agrees that methodological naturalism is "the adoption or assumption of philosophical naturalism within scientific method with or without fully accepting or believing it ... science is not metaphysical and does not depend on the ultimate truth of any metaphysics for its success, but methodological naturalism must be adopted as a strategy or working hypothesis for science to succeed. We may therefore be agnostic about the ultimate truth of naturalism, but must nevertheless adopt it and investigate nature as if nature is all that there is."
Contrary to other notable opponents of teaching Creationism or Intelligent Design in US public schools such as Eugenie Scott, Schafersman asserts that "while science as a process only requires methodological naturalism, I think that the assumption of methodological naturalism by scientists and others logically and morally entails ontological naturalism". as well as the similarly controversial assertion: "I maintain that the practice or adoption of methodological naturalism entails a logical and moral belief in ontological naturalism, so they are not logically decoupled." On the other hand, Scott argues:
that a clear distinction must be drawn between science as a way of knowing about the natural world and science as a foundation for philosophical views. One should be taught to our children in school, and the other can optionally be taught to our children at home. Once this view is explained, I have found far more support than disagreement among my university colleagues. Even someone who may disagree with my logic or understanding of philosophy of science often understands the strategic reasons for separating methodological from philosophical materialism—if we want more Americans to understand evolution.— Eugenie C. Scott, Science and Religion, Methodology and Humanism
However, there are other controversies, Arthur Newell Strahler embeds peculiar anthropic distinctions in the name of naturalism: "The naturalistic view is that the particular universe we observe came into existence and has operated through all time and in all its parts without the impetus or guidance of any supernatural agency. The naturalistic view is espoused by science as its fundamental assumption." Variously known as background independence, the cosmological principle, the principle of universality, the principle of uniformity, or uniformitarianism, there are important philosophical assumptions that cannot be derived from nature.
According to Stephen Jay Gould, "You cannot go to a rocky outcrop and observe either the constancy of nature's laws or the working of unknown processes. It works the other way around. You first assume these propositions and "then you go to the outcrop of rock." "The assumption of spatial and temporal invariance of natural laws is by no means unique to geology since it amounts to a warrant for inductive inference which, as Bacon showed nearly four hundred years ago, is the basic mode of reasoning in empirical science. Without assuming this spatial and temporal invariance, we have no basis for extrapolating from the known to the unknown and, therefore, no way of reaching general conclusions from a finite number of observations. (Since the assumption is itself vindicated by induction, it can in no way "prove" the validity of induction—an endeavor virtually abandoned after Hume demonstrated its futility two centuries ago)." Gould also notes that natural processes such as Lyell's "uniformity of process" are an assumption: "As such, it is another a priori assumption shared by all scientists and not a statement about the empirical world." Such assumptions across time and space are needed for scientists to extrapolate into the unobservable past, according to G.G. Simpson: "Uniformity is an unprovable postulate justified, or indeed required, on two grounds. First, nothing in our incomplete but extensive knowledge of history disagrees with it. Second, only with this postulate is a rational interpretation of history possible, and we are justified in seeking—as scientists we must seek—such a rational interpretation." and according to R. Hooykaas: "The principle of uniformity is not a law, not a rule established after comparison of facts, but a principle, preceding the observation of facts ... It is the logical principle of parsimony of causes and of economy of scientific notions. By explaining past changes by analogy with present phenomena, a limit is set to conjecture, for there is only one way in which two things are equal, but there are an infinity of ways in which they could be supposed different."
Various associated beliefs
Origin of the Universe, Solar System formation, Earth's geological history, abiogenesis, and evolution
According to metaphysical naturalism, if nature is all there is, just as natural cosmological processes, e.g. quantum fluctuations from a multiverse, lead to the Big Bang, and stellar nucleosynthesis brought upon the earliest chemical elements, the formation of the Solar System and the processes involved in abiogenesis arose from natural causes. Naturalists reason about how, not if evolution happened. They maintain that humanity's existence is not by intelligent design but rather a natural process of emergence. With the protoplanetary disk creating planetary bodies, including the Sun and moon, conditions for life to arise billions of years ago, along with the natural formation of plate tectonics, the atmosphere, land masses, and the origin of oceans would also contribute to the kickstarting of biological evolution to occur after the arrival of the earliest organisms, as evidenced through the geological time scale.
The mind is a natural phenomenon
Metaphysical naturalists do not believe in a soul or spirit, nor in ghosts, and when explaining what constitutes the mind they rarely appeal to substance dualism. If one's mind, or rather one's identity and existence as a person, is entirely the product of natural processes, three conclusions follow according to W.T. Stace. Evolutionary psychology and neurobiology would be able to provide accounts of how cultural and psychological phenomena, such as religion, morality, emotions, politics, art, and more, evolved through natural processes. Consciousness itself would also be susceptible to the same evolutionary principles that select other traits.
Utility of intelligence and reason
Metaphysical naturalists hold that intelligence is the refinement and improvement of naturally evolved faculties. The certitude of deductive logic remains unexplained by this essentially probabilistic view. Nevertheless, naturalists believe anyone who wishes to have more beliefs that are true than are false should seek to perfect and consistently employ their reason in testing and forming beliefs. Empirical methods (especially those of proven use in the sciences) are unsurpassed for discovering the facts of reality, while methods of pure reason alone can securely discover logical errors.
Ancient and medieval philosophy
Naturalism was the foundation of two (Vaisheshika, Nyaya) of the six orthodox schools and one (Carvaka) heterodox school of Hinduism. The Carvaka, Nyaya, Vaisheshika schools originated in the 7th, 6th, and 2nd century BCE, respectively.
Western metaphysical naturalism originated in ancient Greek philosophy. The earliest pre-Socratic philosophers, especially the Milesians (Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes) and the atomists (Leucippus and Democritus), were labeled by their peers and successors "the physikoi" (from the Greek φυσικός or physikos, meaning "natural philosopher," borrowing on the word φύσις or physis, meaning "nature") because they investigated natural causes, often excluding any role for gods in the creation or operation of the world. This eventually led to fully developed systems such as Epicureanism, which sought to explain everything that exists as the product of atoms falling and swerving in a void.
Plato's world of eternal and unchanging Forms, imperfectly represented in matter by a divine Artisan, contrasts sharply with the various mechanistic Weltanschauungen, of which atomism was, by the fourth century at least, the most prominent… This debate was to persist throughout the ancient world. Atomistic mechanism got a shot in the arm from Epicurus… while the Stoics adopted a divine teleology… The choice seems simple: either show how a structured, regular world could arise out of undirected processes, or inject intelligence into the system. This was how Aristotle… when still a young acolyte of Plato, saw matters. Cicero… preserves Aristotle's own cave-image: if troglodytes were brought on a sudden into the upper world, they would immediately suppose it to have been intelligently arranged. But Aristotle grew to abandon this view; although he believes in a divine being, the Prime Mover is not the efficient cause of action in the Universe, and plays no part in constructing or arranging it... But, although he rejects the divine Artificer, Aristotle does not resort to a pure mechanism of random forces. Instead he seeks to find a middle way between the two positions, one which relies heavily on the notion of Nature, or phusis.
With the rise and dominance of Christianity in the West and the later spread of Islam, metaphysical naturalism was generally abandoned by intellectuals. Thus, there is little evidence for it in medieval philosophy. The reintroduction of Aristotle's empirical epistemology as well as previously lost treatises by Greco-Roman natural philosophers which was begun by the medieval Scholastics without resulting in any noticeable increase in commitment to naturalism.
It was not until the early modern era of philosophy and the Age of Enlightenment that naturalists like Benedict Spinoza (who put forward a theory of psychophysical parallelism), David Hume, and the proponents of French materialism (notably Denis Diderot, Julien La Mettrie, and Baron d'Holbach) started to emerge again in the 17th and 18th centuries. In this period, some metaphysical naturalists adhered to a distinct doctrine, materialism, which became the dominant category of metaphysical naturalism widely defended until the end of the 19th century.
Immanuel Kant rejected (reductionist) materialist positions in metaphysics, but he was not hostile to naturalism. His transcendental philosophy is considered to be a form of liberal naturalism.
In late modern philosophy, Naturphilosophie, a form of natural philosophy, was developed by Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel as an attempt to comprehend nature in its totality and to outline its general theoretical structure.
A version of naturalism that arose after Hegel was Ludwig Feuerbach's anthropological materialism, which influenced Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels's historical materialism, Engels's "materialist dialectic" philosophy of nature (Dialectics of Nature), and their follower Georgi Plekhanov's dialectical materialism.
In the early 20th century, matter was found to be a form of energy and therefore not fundamental as materialists had assumed. (See History of physics.) In contemporary analytic philosophy, renewed attention to the problem of universals, philosophy of mathematics, the development of mathematical logic, and the post-positivist revival of metaphysics and the philosophy of religion, initially by way of Wittgensteinian linguistic philosophy, further called the naturalistic paradigm into question. Developments such as these, along with those within science and the philosophy of science brought new advancements and revisions of naturalistic doctrines by naturalistic philosophers into metaphysics, ethics, the philosophy of language, the philosophy of mind, epistemology, etc., the products of which include physicalism and eliminative materialism, supervenience, causal theories of reference, anomalous monism, naturalized epistemology (e.g. reliabilism), internalism and externalism, ethical naturalism, and property dualism, for example.
The current usage of the term naturalism "derives from debates in America in the first half of the last century. The self-proclaimed 'naturalists' from that period included John Dewey, Ernest Nagel, Sidney Hook and Roy Wood Sellars."
Currently, metaphysical naturalism is more widely embraced than in previous centuries, especially but not exclusively in the natural sciences and the Anglo-American, analytic philosophical communities. While the vast majority of the population of the world remains firmly committed to non-naturalistic worldviews, prominent contemporary defenders of naturalism and/or naturalistic theses and doctrines today include J. J. C. Smart, David Malet Armstrong, David Papineau, Paul Kurtz, Brian Leiter, Daniel Dennett, Michael Devitt, Fred Dretske, Paul and Patricia Churchland, Mario Bunge, Jonathan Schaffer, Hilary Kornblith, Quentin Smith, Paul Draper and Michael Martin, among many other academic philosophers.
According to David Papineau, contemporary naturalism is a consequence of the build-up of scientific evidence during the twentieth century for the "causal closure of the physical", the doctrine that all physical effects can be accounted for by physical causes.
By the middle of the twentieth century, the acceptance of the causal closure of the physical realm led to even stronger naturalist views. The causal closure thesis implies that any mental and biological causes must themselves be physically constituted, if they are to produce physical effects. It thus gives rise to a particularly strong form of ontological naturalism, namely the physicalist doctrine that any state that has physical effects must itself be physical.
From the 1950s onwards, philosophers began to formulate arguments for ontological physicalism. Some of these arguments appealed explicitly to the causal closure of the physical realm (Feigl 1958, Oppenheim and Putnam 1958). In other cases, the reliance on causal closure lay below the surface. However, it is not hard to see that even in these latter cases the causal closure thesis played a crucial role.— David Papineau, "Naturalism" in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
According to Steven Schafersman, president of Texas Citizens for Science, an advocacy group opposing creationism in public schools, the progressive adoption of methodological naturalism—and later of metaphysical naturalism—followed the advances of science and the increase of its explanatory power. These advances also caused the diffusion of positions associated with metaphysical naturalism, such as existentialism.
Arguments for metaphysical naturalism
Argument from physical minds
In the context of creation and evolution debates, Internet Infidels co-founder Jeffery Jay Lowder argues against what he calls "the argument from bias", that a priori, the supernatural is merely ruled out due to an unexamined stipulation. Lowder believes "there are good empirical reasons for believing that metaphysical naturalism is true, and therefore a denial of the supernatural need not be based upon an a priori assumption".
Several metaphysical naturalists have used the trends in scientific discoveries about minds to argue that no supernatural minds exist. Jeffery Jay Lowder says, "Since all known mental activity has a physical basis, there are probably no disembodied minds. But God is conceived of as a disembodied mind. Therefore, God probably does not exist." Lowder argues the correlation between mind and brain implies that supernatural souls do not exist because the theist position, according to Lowder, is that the mind depends upon this soul instead of the brain.
Argument from cognitive biases
Arguments against metaphysical naturalism include the following examples.
Argument from reason
Philosophers and scientists such as Victor Reppert, William Hasker, and Alvin Plantinga have developed an argument for dualism dubbed the "argument from reason." They credit C.S. Lewis with first bringing the argument to light in his book Miracles; Lewis called the argument "The Cardinal Difficulty of Naturalism," which was the title of chapter three of Miracles.
The argument postulates that if, as naturalism entails, all of our thoughts are the effect of a physical cause, then we have no reason for assuming that they are also the consequent of a reasonable ground. However, knowledge is apprehended by reasoning from ground to consequent. Therefore, if naturalism were true, there would be no way of knowing it (or anything else), except by a fluke.
Through this logic, the statement "I have reason to believe naturalism is valid" is inconsistent in the same manner as "I never tell the truth." That is, to conclude its truth would eliminate the grounds from which it reaches it. To summarize the argument in the book, Lewis quotes J. B. S. Haldane, who appeals to a similar line of reasoning:
If my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of atoms in my brain, I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true ... and hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms.— J. B. S. Haldane, Possible Worlds, page 209
In his essay "Is Theology Poetry?," Lewis himself summarises the argument in a similar fashion when he writes:
If minds are wholly dependent on brains, and brains on biochemistry, and biochemistry (in the long run) on the meaningless flux of the atoms, I cannot understand how the thought of those minds should have any more significance than the sound of the wind in the trees.— C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, page 139
But Lewis later agreed with Elizabeth Anscombe's response to his Miracles argument. She showed that an argument could be valid and ground-consequent even if its propositions were generated via physical cause and effect by non-rational factors. Similar to Anscombe, Richard Carrier and John Beversluis have written extensive objections to the argument from reason on the untenability of its first postulate.
Evolutionary argument against naturalism
Notre Dame philosophy of religion professor and Christian apologist Alvin Plantinga argues, in his evolutionary argument against naturalism, that the probability that evolution has produced humans with reliable true beliefs, is low or inscrutable, unless their evolution was guided, for example, by God. According to David Kahan of the University of Glasgow, in order to understand how beliefs are warranted, a justification must be found in the context of supernatural theism, as in Plantinga's epistemology. (See also supernormal stimuli).
Plantinga argues that together, naturalism and evolution provide an insurmountable "defeater for the belief that our cognitive faculties are reliable", i.e., a skeptical argument along the lines of Descartes' evil demon or brain in a vat.
Take philosophical naturalism to be the belief that there aren't any supernatural entities—no such person as God, for example, but also no other supernatural entities, and nothing at all like God. My claim was that naturalism and contemporary evolutionary theory are at serious odds with one another—and this despite the fact that the latter is ordinarily thought to be one of the main pillars supporting the edifice of the former. (Of course I am not attacking the theory of evolution, or anything in that neighborhood; I am instead attacking the conjunction of naturalism with the view that human beings have evolved in that way. I see no similar problems with the conjunction of theism and the idea that human beings have evolved in the way contemporary evolutionary science suggests.) More particularly, I argued that the conjunction of naturalism with the belief that we human beings have evolved in conformity with current evolutionary doctrine... is in a certain interesting way self-defeating or self-referentially incoherent.— Alvin Plantinga, "Introduction" in Naturalism Defeated?: Essays on Plantinga's Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism
Branden Fitelson of the University of California, Berkeley and Elliott Sober of the University of Wisconsin–Madison argue that Plantinga must show that the combination of evolution and naturalism also defeats the more modest claim that "at least a non-negligible minority of our beliefs are true", and that defects such as cognitive bias are nonetheless consistent with being made in the image of a rational God. Whereas evolutionary science already acknowledges that cognitive processes are unreliable, including the fallibility of the scientific enterprise itself, Plantinga's hyperbolic doubt is no more a defeater for naturalism than it is for theistic metaphysics founded upon a non-deceiving God who designed the human mind: "[neither] can construct a non-question-begging argument that refutes global skepticism." Plantinga's argument has also been criticized by philosopher Daniel Dennett and independent scholar Richard Carrier who argue that a cognitive apparatus for truth-finding can result from natural selection.
Antinominalist argument against naturalism
Edward Feser, in his 2008 book The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism, lays a plenary case against naturalism by re-examining pre-Modern philosophy. Beginning in the second chapter, Feser cites the Platonic and Aristotelian answers to the problem of universals—that is, realism. Feser also offers arguments against nominalism. And by defending realism and rejecting nominalism, he rejects eliminative materialism—and thus naturalism.
In the third chapter, Feser summarizes three of Thomas Aquinas's arguments for the existence of God. These include arguments for an unmoved mover, first, uncaused cause and (supernatural) supreme intelligence, concluding that these must exist not as a matter of probability—as in the intelligent design view, particularly of irreducible complexity—but as a necessary consequence of "obvious, though empirical, starting points".
- Ethical naturalism
- Liberal naturalism
- Naturalist computationalism
- Naturalistic fallacy
- Naturalistic pantheism
- Platonized naturalism
- Poetic naturalism
- Reductive materialism
- Religious naturalism
- Revisionary materialism
- School of Naturalists
- Scientistic materialism
- Spiritual naturalism
- Transcendental naturalism
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Certainly most philosophical naturalists today are materialists[...]
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- See Georgi Plekhanov, "For the Sixtieth Anniversary of Hegel's Death" (1891). See also Plekhanov, Essays on the History of Materialism (1893) and Plekhanov, The Development of the Monist View of History (1895).
- Owen Chadwick, The Secularization of the European Mind in the Nineteenth Century, Cambridge University Press, 1990, p. 165: "During the 1850s German ... scientists conducted a controversy known ... as the materialistic controversy. It was specially associated with the names of Vogt, Moleschott and Büchner" and p. 173: "Frenchmen were surprised to see Büchner and Vogt. ... [T]he French were surprised at German materialism".
- The Nineteenth Century and After, Vol. 151, 1952, p. 227: "the Continental materialism of Moleschott and Buchner".
- Papineau, David "Naturalism", in "The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy"
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It thus gives rise to a particularly strong form of ontological naturalism, namely the physicalist doctrine that any state that has physical effects must itself be physical.
- Williams, Sally (4 July 2007). "The God curriculum". The Telegraph. London. Retrieved 26 December 2008.
- Schafersman, Steven D. (1996). "Naturalism is Today An Essential Part of Science". Section "The Origin of Naturalism and Its Relation to Science".
Naturalism did not exist as a philosophy before the nineteenth century, but only as an occasionally adopted and non-rigorous method among natural philosophers. It is a unique philosophy in that it is not ancient or prior to science, and that it developed largely due to the influence of science.
- Schafersman, Steven D. (1996). "Naturalism is Today An Essential Part of Science". Section "The Origin of Naturalism and Its Relation to Science".
Naturalism is almost unique in that it would not exist as a philosophy without the prior existence of science. It shares this status, in my view, with the philosophy of existentialism.
- Quentin Meillassoux (2008), After Finitude, Bloomsbury, p. 90.
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- A Response to Richard Carrier's Review of C.S. Lewis's Dangerous Idea Archived 2008-12-20 at the Wayback Machine
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...I do indeed think that evolution functions as a contemporary shibboleth by which to distinguish the ignorant fundamentalist goats from the informed and scientifically literate sheep.
According to Richard Dawkins, 'It is absolutely safe to say that, if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid, or insane (or wicked, but I'd rather not consider that).' Daniel Dennett goes Dawkins one (or two) further: 'Anyone today who doubts that the variety of life on this planet was produced by a process of evolution is simply ignorant—inexcusably ignorant.' You wake up in the middle of the night; you think, can that whole Darwinian story really be true? Wham! You are inexcusably ignorant.
I do think that evolution has become a modern idol of the tribe. But of course it doesn't even begin to follow that I think the scientific theory of evolution is false. And I don't.
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